Gerd ‘Der Bomber’ Müller and Roberto ‘Bonimba’ Boninsegna: two strikers from the same era, with much in common beyond their explosive nicknames. Both played at the very highest level for club and country, both were squat and strong, both were deadly finishers and both had an uncanny grasp of the art of finding space in the most crowded of penalty boxes.
That Boninsegna is much less celebrated today than the prolific German – or even a number of his Italian contemporaries – is no surprise as he was a player who was regularly underrated during his playing days, too.
Substance versus style; while Italian football in Boninsegna’s day was austere, thrill-free and driven by a pathological obsession for defeat avoidance, at its heart was a fundamental contradiction. For all that the prevailing ends-justify-the-means philosophy went unquestioned, club presidents, supporters and the sports media could still be all too easily seduced by players of charisma and style who played with a certain panache – even if their overall effectiveness was questionable.
There was little to romanticise about the surly and utilitarian Boninsegna who was a player universally respected but rarely loved. Less of a physical force of nature than Riva, less elegant than Prati, less spectacular than Anastasi and yet one who scored more Serie A goals than all of them; Boninsegna played and scored in a World Cup Final, was the de facto (if unacknowledged) costliest footballer in the world for a time and was one of the game’s most effective forwards of the 60s and 70s.
Roberto Boninsegna will always be most closely associated with Internazionale, a relationship that flattered the Milanese giants more than it did the player. He started as a youngster there in the early 1960s just as Helenio Herrera was establishing the club as the preeminent force in European football. Playing as a left winger in his early days, Boninsegna’s promise took him to edge of the first-team but no further with the established Mario Corso too formidable a player to unseat.
The Cagliari Years
Dumped out on loan with Prato in Serie B and forgotten, Boninsegna’s eye for goal saw him redeployed as a striker and impress enough during stints with Potenza and Varese to earn a move in 1966 to a Cagliari side on the rise.
Boninsegna was given the onerous challenge of forging a partnership with the formidable Luigi Riva, by then established as Serie A’s most reliable source of goals and the national team’s main striker. This pairing had its moments with Boninsegna’s clever movement freeing up space for Riva to cut in from the left flank and fire his trademark blunderbuss shots at goal, but in time there was a realisation that these explosive left-footers were too similar in style.
With Riva having reached near-deity status at Cagliari, it was Boninsegna who had to adapt his game and switch, successfully, to more of an inside-forward role. Ever one to seek new ways to improve his game, Roberto was phlegmatic about the change having seen his own boyhood hero Gerry Hitchens prospering upon being forced into a similar change at Inter some years earlier.
The Cagliari forwards shared a number of playing traits but each brought very different personalities to their team. With his reserved nature and good manners, Riva conformed to the (dated) perception Europeans had about the gentleman British footballer. By contrast the volatile and cunning Boninsegna was emphatically Latin American in his style: a classic street brawler, a picker of defenders pockets with something of the night about him.
The Internazionale Years
On the back of a fine season helping Cagliari to a then-best-ever second place in Serie A, in the summer of 1969 Boninsegna transferred to Inter after seven seasons away from the San Siro. While this was an extraordinarily expensive deal for the Nerazzurri, there was a whiff of make-do and mend about it. Inter had failed with a bid for Riva earlier that same summer while a deal to sign Anastasi had fallen through just 12 months earlier. Cagliari were not unwilling sellers either. Boninsegna was popular, but losing him was seen as a sacrifice worth making because of the value of the deal and because it allowed the Sardinian club to continue to finance vast contracts for their talisman Riva.
The complex money plus players deal masked an overall cost which comfortably exceeded the all-cash Anastasi transfer to Juventus a year earlier, the deal that was considered the most expensive in history at the time. Cagliari received a sum of around £200,000 along with three players in part-exchange, two of them full internationals in Angelo Domenghini and Sergio Gori, both of whom would play alongside Boninsegna at the World Cup the following year.
The Azzuri Years
Boninsegna became one of that tournament’s standout players, but that he even travelled to Mexico in the first place was a surprise. He had made his Azzurri debut against Switzerland in December 1967 but his international career never quite took hold thanks in part to a lukewarm relationship with coach Valcareggi and the good form of Pietro Anastasi.
The Juventus man was the unquestioned first-choice for Mexico until a stomach problem caused him to withdraw on the eve of the tournament. Roberto Boninsegna was called up to take his place and would make the most of his opportunity.
His decisive moments came late in the tournament. During the thrilling 4-3 ‘game of the century’ semi-final win against West Germany, Boninsegna scored the opener with a trademark left-foot shot hit early, low and hard. He had a hand in the extra-time winner too when he wriggled clear on the left to set up Gianni Rivera for a simple finish.
In the final itself, despite Italy eventually succumbing to Brazil in extra-time, Boninsegna had shown a typical piece of sharp opportunism in taking advantage of defensive carelessness to craft an Italian equaliser from nothing. Those incisive performances were still not enough to make him a key part of the national scene and Roberto appeared only sporadically over the next four years. His international career fizzled out after a modest total of 22 appearances and nine goals.
Back at club level the striker would spend seven largely frustrating years with the Nerazzurri. His own form was generally excellent and he was a prolific scorer throughout his time at San Siro, but too often he was let down by an inadequate team around him.
The 1970 World Cup kickstarted the best form of his career and the following season he was the scourge of Serie A defences, his 24 goals winning him the capocannoniere crown and Inter the Serie A title – his only major honour in Milan. A further 22 goals the following season made Bonimba Serie A’s top scorer once again in an otherwise shot-shy Inter team that had become far too reliant on his goals.
The Juventus Years
He cut an increasingly frustrated figure as, year after year, successive managers struggled to put together a team capable of providing him with reliable service. In the summer of 1976 Inter would turn again to Juventus striker Pietro Anastasi to bring a more youthful look to their attack and Boninsegna was proposed as a makeweight in the deal. Out of favour in Turin, Anastasi was five years younger than the 32-year-old Boninsegna and not for the first time Juventus showed they had a canny eye for the smart deal.
Age and his Inter frustrations had certainly not dulled his fiercely competitive spirit. During a pre-season Juventus friendly against Pro Patria, Gaetano Scirea had possession but repeatedly ignored Boninsegna’s attacking runs. The striker’s patience snapped and he sprinted over to the defender, grabbed him by the shirt and said: “See, we have the same shirt. So give it to me. GIVE THE BALL TO ME!’. A dumbstruck Scirea nodded his understanding.
The veteran would become so much more than the impact sub most had imagined his role to be when he moved to Turin. Top scorer for Juventus in his first season, he hit double figures in Serie A in both of his first two years there helping his new club to back-to-back titles, a UEFA Cup win and a Coppa Italia success.
One of his finest moments came when he faced his old club in Turin for the first time after his transfer. Juventus won 2-0, Boninsegna scored both goals and his replacement Anastasi contributed as little to that game as he did to Inter’s broader cause during his disastrous spell there.
After two good seasons, Bonimba knew his time as a Juventus regular was coming to an end when kept on the bench until extra-time during the 1978 European Cup semi-final defeat to Club Brugge. He spent one more season as a substitute then left to play a final season in Serie B with Verona. The curtain came down on a stellar career at the age of 36.
The headline figures don’t, admittedly, grab the eye. A loser in both a World Cup and European Cup Final, Roberto Boninsegna accrued a respectable if hardly dazzling number of trophy wins during his career.
Sitting sixteenth in the list of Serie A all-time scorers doesn’t seem an especially impressive statistic either, especially with contemporary journeymen like Alberto Gilardino placed higher. And at the same time Boninsegna was plying his trade in Serie A, contemporaries like Jupp Heynckes, Josip Skoblar, Carlos Bianchi, Eusébio and, of course, Gerd Müller were hitting the back of the net in their respective Leagues at twice the rate of the Italian.
But to genuinely understand the brilliance of Boninsegna is in part to understand the uniquely demanding and distinct nature of Italian football in the 60s and 70s. Footballing evolution and natural selection was at work.
For strikers to survive and prosper in such a harsh environment required an adaptation of their role into solitary and self-sufficient hunters; individuals capable of maintaining total focus and showing utter ruthlessness when rare opportunities presented themselves in a game. And the most highly evolved of them all was Bonimba, a venomous snake slumbering in the long grass with one eye open, ready to coil up and take lethal advantage of an unwitting opponent who momentarily let his guard down.
Just as venomous as his finishing was that famously volcanic temper that brought him memorably into conflict with players like Roberto Rosato and Joe Corrigan. Romeo Bonetti was an infamously rough defensive player during the 1970s, but after kicking Boninsegna once too often during a Milan derby he demonstrated a hitherto unseen impersonation of Italian Olympic sprinter Pietro Mannea as he was chased the length of the pitch by the angry striker seeking to exact violent retribution.
Similarly Bonimba had few qualms about utilising the dark arts to gain competitive advantage. He was at the centre of the enormous controversy that surrounded Inter’s European Cup defeat at Mönchengladbach after being hit by a Coca-Cola can thrown from the crowd. Taken off with a claimed serious head injury, this was used as a defence for Inter to successfully petition for a replay. The German club was adamant that the can in question had been empty rather than full, as Boninsegna and Inter had claimed. More controversy followed a game in Rome in 1973 when he punched an effort past the Lazio keeper, an act unseen by the referee who allowed the goal despite furious protestations from the home side.
But ultimately we remember Boninsegna most for his functional, ruthless brilliance and sheer resourcefulness in honing his game to become less the striker he was and more the striker he needed to be to prosper in Serie A.